Why is Toronto so awful at dealing with food trucks?

Why is Toronto so awful at dealing with food trucks?

El Gastrónomo Vagabundo’s Tamara Jensen and her team during happier trucking times (Image: Renée Suen)

El Gastrónomo Vagabundo is known as one of the province’s best food trucks. Based out of St. Catharines, it does solid business throughout the Niagara Region and beyond. It was lauded in the Globe and Mail, and it was featured on national television. But as of yesterday, the truck’s owners have given up on trying to make their otherwise successful mobile business work in Toronto. The reason, they say, is that city bylaws make it too difficult to turn a profit.

“Things are set up in a way that it’s impossible to make any money,” says Tamara Jensen, co-owner of El Gastrónomo. “It’s really not worth it for us.”

Current bylaws prevent new food trucks from operating on public property in downtown Toronto, including city streets. Instead, they’re relegated to serving mostly at events or on private commercial property. And that’s not all—the city charges unfair fees, Jensen says, and it takes forever to get paperwork done. Last year, it took nearly six months for her to renew a food truck license with the city.

Zane Caplansky, owner of Caplansky’s Delicatessen and its corresponding food truck, is mystified by some of the city’s procedures. The staff members for his food truck, he says, all required criminal background checks, which he had to pay for. He also says that private landlords can be difficult—and often impossible—to work with. The experience of trying to make his truck profitable has been a nightmare. “It’s been maddening, frustrating, money-eating and soul-destroying,” he says. “Things couldn’t be more prohibitive.”

The good news is that the city is looking to adopt a new, less stringent street food bylaw by this summer. Last night, the first of two community discussions took place at city hall to address the subject. That’s all well and good, but we’re still skeptical. The city doesn’t exactly have a good track record when it comes to implementing change. First, there was the Toronto A La Cart fiasco, and then there was last year’s pilot program, which permitted trucks to operate at five city parks. The move sounded good in theory, but it didn’t work out very well in practice.

“None of the trucks were thrilled about those locations,” says Suresh Doss, who was the pilot project’s coordinator. “We haven’t made any progress.”

Doss, who has been at the forefront of food truck advocacy in Toronto for the past few years, is concerned that other trucks will follow El Gastrónomo’s footsteps, and that new trucks will avoid Toronto altogether. “There are lots of new food trucks coming onto the scene that aren’t interested in coming to Toronto,” he says. “The scene is much hotter outside of Toronto. It’s much hotter in Niagara, much hotter in Burlington.”

Part of the problem is that restaurant lobbyists, such as the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association, are convinced that food trucks could leech business from nearby restaurants. ORHMA supports strict food truck regulations, including keeping trucks away from downtown. (Interestingly, ORHMA admits that data on food truck business in Canada is “scarce.”)

“I believe there’s a place for food trucks but any truck in competition with a bricks-and-mortar restaurant is simply unfair competition,” restaurateur Debra DeMonte told the Toronto Star in 2012. “It has to be a level playing field.” DeMonte is currently the chair of ORHMA Toronto Region.

Food truck operators, of course, disagree: they say that people seeking a sit-down restaurant experience won’t be swayed by the presence of a food truck. And besides, the market should allow for some competition.“If you serve great food, with great service, you have nothing to worry about from me and my food truck,” Caplansky says.

Doss would like to see a new pilot program wherein trucks are permitted to operate downtown. He says trucks should be permitted at Queen’s Park and Yonge-Dundas Square, and he says there’s room for new trucks at Nathan Phillips Square, instead of just the antiquated chip trucks that currently operate there.

Meanwhile, other cities around the country, such as Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver, are all allowing their food trucks to flourish—and their restaurants appear to be surviving. Toronto continues its restrictive ways at its own peril.